By now, you’ve probably heard of the sheer cinematic power that Moonlight has, which is true. In fact, Moonlight is sensational. If the often overused term ‘masterpiece’ is to be applied here, this film doesn’t stretch far from such a high regard. Moonlight comes from Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), who directs this coming of age story with such remarkable poignancy that it demands to be seen again. It’s a remarkable achievement for a film whose small scale sensibility doesn’t reflect the gaze of its scope.
The film’s screenplay takes inspiration from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’, the semi-autobiographical work which Jenkins split’s into three distinct parts over the course of the narrative. Three separate but all completely convincing actors lend their personality to the character of Chiron, who is often identified as ‘Little’ in the first act, and ‘Black’ in the final one. Chiron is a man of few words, but it’s easy to comprehend why.
The first time we see Chiron or ‘Little’ (Alex Hibbert) is visually significant; he’s running away from some bullies in the tough Miami neighbourhood in which he grows up. Chiron spends much of the film trying to escape, an understandable yet heartbreaking conflict for someone dealing with repressed sexuality, whilst wrestling with the feelings of self-acceptance.
Chiron might be Moonlight’s protagonist, but it’s Juan (Mahershala Ali) who gives the film soul in the first act. Juan acts a surrogate father figure to the young boy, with his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe) acting as the caring mother Chiron longs for. The harsh irony of the situation is that Juan sells drugs to Paula (a superb Naomie Harris), Chiron’s real mother who is more interested in getting her fix than caring for her son. Mahershala Ali is magnificent in his casting of Juan. The Oscar nomination is truly deserved and it’s almost a shame that this subtle but powerful role isn’t given more screen-time.
The next time we see Chiron (now Ashton Sanders), he’s a skinny, hunched over, reclusive teen who no longer stands for being called ‘Little’. His protective posture reflects his state of mind, concealing his true self to the world around him. There’s a brilliant shot which depicts Chiron hiding in a cage-like setting, an early example of the textured cinematography that Moonlight envisions. The second act is perhaps the film’s most resonant and surely the most intimate. The beach scene with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is perfectly framed in the reflection of the moon, an important image in the film that is first introduced in the first act. The ocean and water, in general, provide a sensory, absorbing stimulus that is visually reoccurring throughout the film; at times suggesting a metaphor for Chiron himself, who later declares that he only drinks water.
In the final act, Chiron, now known on the streets as ‘Black’ (Trevante Rhodes) lives a life that closely resembles that of Juan’s in the first act. Chiron is bulked up and his physicality masks his inner delicacy. “Who is you, Chiron?” asks Kevin, now played excellently by Andre Holland. There’s an excellent video essay that has recently surfaced online visually comparing Moonlight and In the Mood For Love, and it’s easy to acknowledge the ocular influence of Wong Kar-wai, particular in the framing of two characters’s with a deep affection for one another.
Like Chiron, and Kevin, most of the characters in the film have their flaws, and perhaps that’s what makes them so authentic. Moonlight is dealing with issues that most Hollywood films wouldn’t dare address, and the film retains this sense of verisimilitude through it’s slow but sombre screenplay. It’s quite incredible really, to see still a sophomore director such as Jenkins handle this kind of film with such dexterity. It’s near impossible to overlook how the film looks and sounds too. Lusciously shot by James Laxton in rich colours, the kinetic camera work reflects how the film seems to be constantly moving, at times in a lucid dream like state. Nicholas Britell’s score is both haunting and arresting, ranging from Bernard Herrmann-esque ‘Psycho’ strings that contrast well with the profound piano chords. There’s a scene early on which uses the master sounds of Mozart to depict a young Chiron’s solitude, hiding in plain sight in a crowded football game. It’s scenes such as this that, without notice, slip by poetically in the way that the film flows.
Moonlight may well be looked back on as a landmark for independent cinema. It’s been compared to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a slightly partisan observation in that both films use a similar concept in completely unique circumstances. Having seen the film twice now, it’s fair to assess that the film retains a sense of timelessness that compliments how staggering it truly is. The first time, I was admittedly a little overwhelmed by it, the second time, I was absolutely floored by it.